The diplomacy says that the United States will hand over some measure of control of Iraq to an interim government in July. The reality is quite a bit more complicated than that, with large numbers of American troops likely to be in Iraq for many years. This puts a big asterisk next to any notion of Iraqi sovereignty.
The size of the near-term U.S. footprint in Iraq could vary depending on just how fast that new Iraqi government gets a handle on security, but the Pentagon is already making plans for any eventuality. Plans for as many as 14 possibly permanent, or in Pentagonese,"enduring" bases are already in motion. Former Iraqi army bases in or around Baghdad, Mosul, Taji, Balad, Kirkuk, Nasiriyah, Tikrit, Fallujah, and Irbil will be upgraded by U.S. engineers to U.S. specs. Several factors are driving the plans for a large U.S. presence, not the least of which are geography and economics.
Ever since the end of the Cold War, U.S. bases in Western Europe have looked a little odd from a strategic point of view. Positioning U.S. forces smack-up against the Warsaw Pact did accomplish several things, however. It made clear the American commitment to NATO and to defend Europe so that no Soviet leader could entertain the possibility of making war only on Europe. It allowed for a quick response from U.S. forces, particularly U.S. tactical aircraft. And it meant that U.S. troops were able to train on the terrain that they are expected to fight on.
But the downside of bases in Western Europe is that all the population density made it hard to do the things generals like to do, like fly lots of really fast planes at tree top level. As the brass puts it, Europe is "crowded"—with people, and commerce, and stuff that you are not supposed to blow up.
Plus the general focus of the threat to the U.S. is no longer in Central Europe, and certainly not in the Greenland-UK-Scandinavia arc that so preoccupied NATO planners during the Cold War. Both the Gulf War and operations in the Balkans pushed the U.S. to figure out how to support operations to the south and east of its traditional North Atlantic focus while still keeping a strategically balanced worldwide posture.
The U.S. thought it had a stable base in the Middle East in Saudi Arabia, but that turned out to be a flash point for Muslim extremists who saw nothing less than latter-day Crusaders encroaching on Islam. (Iraq could serve the same purpose, yes, but perhaps never to the same extent.) Qatar is now home to the air ops which used to run out of Saudi bases.
More importantly, the Gulf War also produced a Kuwait ready and willing to serve as an advanced U.S. supply launching pad, a pad that made operations in Iraq possible. To this day coalition forces are utterly dependent on their life-line to Kuwait, which trucks in both military and civilian supplies in convoys that would do C.W. McCall proud. But this gets us to the enduring bases.
Trucking in stuff is terribly inefficient, not to mention a security nightmare. In fact, the only way to keep the convoys secure is to generally run roughshod over anything that looks like a threat, like local traffic. This means that your successful convoy security leaves you with a public relations nightmare.
The thing to do, then, is find a way to build great big, long runways so you can fly in all your supplies. This is cheaper in the long run and will not anger the locals; provided you can secure the approaches to your runways, it's safer too. Plus it also allows you to take all those National Guardsmen who are running your truck convoys non-stop and send them home before they quit and opt not to re-up.
So from the Pentagon's point of view, building enduring bases in Iraq makes so much sense that it is not even going to wait for some civilian authority to order it.
"The engineering vision is well ahead of the policy vision," Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, deputy chief of operations for the coalition in Iraq recently explained. "What the engineers are saying now is: Let's not be behind the policy decision. Let's make this place ready so we can address policy options."
In other words, the civilian policy makers will be presented with a fait accompli. They can opt to keep the bases that the Pentagon has already spent money to build, and put up with the iffy security conditions and bad PR. Or station U.S. troops somewhere outside Iraq where it will be more costly and more difficult to rush them in if they re needed. Oh, and the new spiffy U.S. bases in Iraq will fall into the hands of who knows what if you leave.
It is a classic choice. Enduring even.